Who's paying to make Boris prime minister?

The miserable contest to choose the next UK prime minister – fuelled by dark money, an obsequious press and a mockery of ‘choice’ – shows just how broken our politics is.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
6 July 2019, 2.45pm
Conservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson during a Tory leadership hustings in Nottingham.
Danny Lawson/PA Wire/PA Images

Trying to explain to outsiders just how the United Kingdom is currently ‘choosing’ its next prime minister guarantees bafflement, followed by incredulity.

Of course, it isn’t the ‘United Kingdom’ choosing at all. Only 0.34% of the electorate gets a say: those who pay £25 a year to be members of the ruling party. They’re far from typical of the nation whose future they are deciding: 86% are in the wealthiest social classes, 71% are male, 97% are white and 40% are over the age of 65.

Then, there’s the ‘choice’ between the two prime ministerial candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

In the front runner Boris Johnson, we have a candidate who three high court judges say has behaved so deceptively in his private life that it constituted a “public interest matter”, something that the “electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office”. A couple of weeks ago police were called to the flat he shares with his girlfriend, after neighbours were alarmed by a loud row and hearing a woman shout ‘get off me’. (The police decided to take no further action.)

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Johnson is seen by many of his own party colleagues as a security risk

Johnson also fronted a political outfit – the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign – which broke the law and has been referred to the police for possible criminal charges. He has a catastrophic record of blunders in his previous job as foreign secretary, displaying “stunning incompetence”, for example, in the handling of the case of British mother incarcerated for years in an Iranian prison. And he has a long and well-documented history of making racist, homophobic and sexist slurs.

If this all sounds familiar, here’s some more. In recent weeks, it has emerged that Johnson is also seen by many of his own party colleagues as a security risk – a view privately shared by a number of civil servants whose job is, well, security. As James Cusick reports for openDemocracy today, Johnson seemed to think nothing of ditching his own close protection officers, while foreign secretary, to jet off to Italy to hang out with the son of a Russian oligarch and former KGB agent, a glamour model and other celebrities at a luxury villa where “nothing is off the menu”.

If this sounds like I have a preference in this two-man horse-race, let me point you to the excellent work of my colleague Caroline Molloy, who has for many years documented the disastrous track record of Johnson’s rival, Jeremy Hunt, when he was in charge of the nation’s healthcare.

Poverty of choice in this contest would be a wild understatement.

Useful friends

Plenty of column inches have already been devoted to the democratic outrage that a prime minister for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is to be chosen by a small, self-selecting group of mainly white men in the south-east of England.

Johnson’s relationship with Evgeny Lebedev is particularly valuable

Far less attention has been devoted to the valuable media friendships that the man who will probably be the next prime minister has cultivated: friendships which appear to have bought him an astonishing level of press subservience, just as Tony Blair and David Cameron formed close alliances with Rupert Murdoch.

Johnson’s relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, the proprietor of London’s Evening Standard newspaper, is particularly valuable – the Standard is a freesheet monopoly across the London, distributed to millions of commuters every week. When openDemocracy previously revealed a ‘cash for column inches’ scandal involving the paper – which had sold positive advertorial dressed up as news to Uber, Google and other companies – we asked politicians from all the major UK parties to speak about the story on the record. None would. They were too afraid of the power the newspaper wielded – several even admitted this to us.

The Standard’s editor, George Osborne, used to be an outspoken Boris critic: as chancellor he had been on the opposite side over Brexit, after which his paper frequently lambasted Johnson and other Tory hard-Brexiteers. But all that has changed now, with Osborne rumoured to be seeking a return to politics. To do so, he’ll need to curry favour with the new boss.

The Standard now deems Boris “the candidate who might just get Britain feeling good about itself again… he can put his party, and his country, back on track.”

Lavish PR – but who’s paying?

Boris’s PR makeover has largely been credited to Lynton Crosby, the controversial Australian PR guru who also ran Johnson’s successful London mayoral bids – as well as Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 election campaign and Zac Goldsmith’s disgraceful, racist dog-whistling London mayoral bid.

This time round, Crosby has managed to enforce hitherto unseen discipline on Johnson. The gaffe-prone candidate has stayed remarkably on script (or, more to the point, has said very little).

We may never know who footed the bill for the lavish Boris PR splurge

openDemocracy understands that the Boris campaign is one of the largest and most lucrative contracts in Crosby’s current portfolio. It is no pro-bono operation. We have been told that the #ElectBoris and the Leave operations inside Crosby’s firm, CTF Partners, are virtually inseparable contracts, funded on a scale that would dwarf major clients inside major lobbying companies.

The operation and business of these campaigns are so secretive even inside CTF itself that only those working on the Boris/Leave account – estimated to have been in play for at least two years – know what it is actually doing.

And the question no one seems willing to answer is: who’s paying for all of this? We've now asked CTF four times. They haven't answered.

We know about some of the candidates’ backers. Last month openDemocracy revealed that both Johnson and Hunt have received substantial donations from a prominent climate change denier. But rules on donor transparency which apply to UK general elections don’t apply to internal party contests. Instead, gifts to MPs are published only in their register of interests – which means we may not have the full details on who has bankrolled the campaigns until after the contest is over. And, thanks to the many holes in our transparency laws, we may never know who footed the bill for the lavish Boris PR splurge. But we do know who some of the clients they've had: including big tobacco, fossil fuel firms and Australia's meat industry.

This matters – even more than who gets chosen for the top job. For the past two-and-a-half years, openDemocracy has been tracking the dark money that is fuelling Brexit, and is seeking to shape our politics. It’s taken us to some extraordinary places.

We now have a tantalising indication (which we can’t verify, because of a breathtaking political stitch-up), that the secretive backer(s) of Boris’s lavish PR operation may be the same, or linked to, the controversial £435,000 Brexit donation to the DUP. (If we’re wrong, we’d be very happy to put the record straight – answers on a postcard, please.)

The global picture

As we’ve traced the dark money seeking to influence politics in the UK and across Europe, the trail has time and again taken us to the US, where a growing alliance of extreme free-market libertarians and social conservatives wants to reshape the world in their image. Together, these networks seek to police people’s bodies, families and religion – and vehemently oppose any measures to tackle climate change. (See the excellent work of Claire Provost and colleagues mapping this.)

We’ve only scratched the surface. But when you start to look at this global picture, it’s less surprising that the miserable choice on offer in Britain today is between a candidate who’s bullish about a no-deal Brexit – pushed by free-marketeers who want to turn Britain into an “offshore, low-tax haven” – and another who is a social conservative who personally favours halving legal abortion limits. Oh, and both of them have repeatedly voted against measures to tackle climate change.

Nor is it surprising that they are both vowing their readiness for a no-deal Brexit, opening Britain up to a brutal trade deal with the US, where, as Trump let slip, “everything is on the table”, including the NHS. After all, the think tank which has probably done most to shape the ideas of Brexit supporters – and effectively wrote the controversial ‘Malthouse compromise’ on Brexit – has been funded by a right-wing US foundation to promote the privatisation of healthcare.

If you think independent, high-quality news outlets like openDemocracy should continue to demand answers about who’s really bankrolling politics in the UK and globally, please consider supporting our work today. Thank you.

Read more: Boris, the Russian oligarch and the Page 3 model

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